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New study reveals heavy weapons for sale on social media in Libya

Weapons looted from military stockpiles during Libya's civil war of 2011 are being sold illegally through social media sites
Weapons looted from military stockpiles during Libya's civil war of 2011 are being sold illegally through social media sites John Cantlie/Getty Images

Weapons looted from military stockpiles during Libya's civil war of 2011 are being sold illegally through social media sites, and especially on Facebook, a study by the Small Arms Survey has found.


While it was in power, the Qaddafi regime tightly regulated the Libyan domestic arms trade, and local black market sales were virtually unheard of.

The report was published this week by the Small Arms Survey in Geneva, and used data analysed by Armament Research Services (ARES) concerning 97 online sales of light weapons in Libya. A more indepth report will follow later in 2016 that will review more than 1,000 online sales of small arms in the country.

This online trafficking does not come as a surprise to experts who agree that this has been going on for a while, and not just in Libya, because similar trafficking has been uncovered in Syria, Iraq and Yemen.

What is surprising though, they say, is the variety of weapons that can be found on social media networks.

"When we started this, we expected to mainly find small arms, individual rifles or pistols, but the fact that you have such a variety of higher calibre military grande equipment is very eye opening," Nicolas Florquin, the research coordinator for the Small Arms Survey, the Geneva-based international research center that underwrote the study, told RFI.

"One of the things that comes up is that in 2011 there was a lot of concern, an international concern in the weapons that were being looted, and I think this information really shows that five years later we've achieved very limited progress in reducing weapons' proliferation in Libya so I hope this serves as a good reminder that there is much work to be done in Libya. The online trade is a fraction of the actual trade that is happening there, there's also local trade through local networks, actual physical market and the fact that you have this type of equipments showing up on these pages gives a sense of the situation on the ground."

Items for sale on Facebook, for example, in Libya also include other equipment sought by militias or terrorists for their operations. These range from ammunition to rifle scopes, hand grenades or two-way tactical radios, to list just a few.

Online trafficking "difficult to prevent"

"The social media and communication platforms all have strict terms of services, mostly explicitly prohibiting the trade of firearms and have active moderation on these pages, so I think there's an effort, certainly, by organisations to limit this practice," military arms, munitions specialist and one of the report's authors, Nic Jenzen-Jones told RFI.

He says, however, experts have noticed that social media platforms are improving their  security measures.

"It's probably important to stress though that there's no judgment of individuals buying arms for self defense, but it is important to understand that there's a large trade taking place outside of state control in Libya and there's active participation by individuals with affiliations with armed groups."

He says most of the trade concerns either private individuals who want to own a weapon for their own protection or people who have commercial use for these weapons.

Furthermore, some experts note that social media companies rely on users to report such postings - but since they themselves can be both sellers or buyers - why would they report anything?

"The issue is also for governments not to be able to actually see what's going on unless they get cooperation from Facebook, because they don't have access to the private messages that are circulating on Facebook, and the level of encryption of Facebook makes it really difficult for them to break it," Frederick Douzet, the chairwoman of the Castex Chair of Cyber Strategy and a Geopolitics professor at Paris 8 University, told RFI.

"They might be able to break into the computers of people that they already follow and target but it's very difficult to control all the exchanges there might be, including with people who are not under their radars so it does facilitate the circulation of arms exchange and as a result, increases probably the danger."

All of these postings violate Facebook’s policies, which since January has forbidden the facilitation of private sales of firearms and other weapons, but using Facebook to help sell items not considered as weapons, such as bulletproof plates, doesn't violate the company’s rules.

Though the researchers believe this trade is happening only in Libya, there has been growing concerns over weapons entering Europe coming through Libya.

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